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On the record: grassroots relevance of the Commonwealth 

In the second of a series of scholarly articles marking the 2018 Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in London Dr Mandy Banton, senior research fellow at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies (ICWS), explore how the organisation can harness immense power for global good. 

‘Is the Commonwealth relevant?’ This question invites others: What do we understand by ‘the Commonwealth’? Relevant to whom?

If we consider the Commonwealth as an umbrella organisation of nations ‘freely co-operating in the pursuit of peace, liberty and progress’ (The London Declaration, 26 April 1949), we may be unsure of its purpose. We may wonder how effective the Secretariat is, and how appropriate its base in a royal palace at the heart of the former British Empire. We may be convinced by a media view that the biennial Commonwealth Heads of Government Meetings (CHOGM) are ineffective talking shops.

Perhaps we should instead consider the grass roots. The Secretariat lists 82 ‘accredited organisations’ representing a range of interest groups – from engineers to parliamentarians, accountants to paediatricians. Their websites show the dedication of their largely voluntary officers, the effectiveness of their work, and their very real relevance.

Solving new problems through shared histories

Let’s look at two. The Association of Commonwealth Archivists and Records Managers (ACARM) was founded to link archival institutions sharing a common history and language. It uses its network to develop and share strategies for solving increasingly complex problems, to promote professional education and training, and to hold regular symposia – most recently on ‘Government secrecy in the Era of Openness’ at Senate House, London, and ‘Imaging Imperialism’ at the National Archives of Malta.

In November 2017 ACARM, an entirely voluntary organisation, adopted a position paper on the Foreign and Commonwealth Office ‘Migrated Archives’, the records of former colonial governments removed by the UK at independence. Members are encouraged to follow the Code of Ethics of the International Council on Archives, which states that ‘Archivists should co-operate in the repatriation of displaced archives’.

If repatriation continues to be unacceptable to the British Government, ACARM asks it to demonstrate transparency by making public the legal opinion of 2011 that is the basis of its decision to retain the records, and to demonstrate goodwill by providing free copies to the countries from which the records were removed.

Information is power – and a basic human right

In contrast, the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative (CHRI) is sufficiently well-funded to have a permanent staff. Its work is split into two core themes: access to information; access to justice. The CHRI believes that the right to information is fundamental to the realisation of economic, social, civil and political rights. Informed participation by all citizens depends on increased access to official information, and the right to such access must be guaranteed by effective legislation.

CHRI works to raise public awareness of the value of the right to information. It collaborates with community groups and encourages the development of networks of concerned civil society organisations. It researches the specific information needs of the people and communicates them to policymakers.

Neither ACARM nor CHRI limit their focus rigidly to the Commonwealth or individual member states. ACARM, for example, is closely linked with the Africa Programme of the International Council on Archives, and through its membership collaborates with ICA regional bodies such as CARBICA (the Caribbean Regional Branch) and the various African branches. CHRI collaborates with the Africa Freedom of Information Centre, which works in both Anglophone and Francophone Africa, and it has an interest in access to information in Nepal.

It is clear, however, that focusing their attentions on a group of nation states which largely retain common legislative and bureaucratic processes simplifies their work plans and makes them more effective and relevant. In contrast, for example, the newly appointed ICA Expert Group on Shared Archival Heritage faces an up-hill task in working to a fully universal remit.

Dr Mandy BantonDr Mandy Banton (left) is former principal records specialist (diplomatic and colonial) at The National Archives of the UK, and an historian with a PhD from SOAS. She was elected a fellow of the Royal Historical Society in February 2017.

 

Also in this ‘Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting’ series:

Crisis, what crisis? The Commonwealth’s cross-racial character makes for a saner world and ensures its relevance

When the future is bright, who needs a phoenix? 

Beyond compare: a commonwealth of people and ideas 

Student voices from Commonwealth countries 

Visible engagement – essential for the rule of law and human rights

Towards a ‘Commonwealth 21st century development paradigm’

Commonwealth of nations – not Britain 

From apartheid to Brexit – decolonisation is a two-way street

The Commonwealth and me – a view from West Acton, the last in this series, will be published on 18 April 

More information

In defence of free media: what can the Commonwealth do? (11 April). With the Commonwealth Journalists Association, the event will propose guidelines to improve the safety of journalists and strengthen the role of the media in member states.

Re-engaging with the Commonwealth? Gambia and Zimbabwe (16 April)

The state of the Commonwealth (19 April) British Library debate and launch of Professor Murphy’s iconoclastic book, The Empire’s New Clothes: The Myth of the Commonwealth in which hestrips away the gilded self-image of the Commonwealth to reveal an irrelevant institution wallowing in imperial amnesia’ (Joanna Lewis, associate professor of international history, LSE).

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